Authenticity is a word we are seeing a lot in business these days, but what is authenticity? If we look at the dictionary definition of authentic we learn that it is “being of undisputed origin, genuine”. I think we can all agree that being genuine is a good practice. However, in working as a Coach I’ve seen that it isn’t always the easiest thing for people to do, especially at work. Some individuals have difficulty with being able to practice authenticity, they are concerned with how they are viewed by others and put a lot of effort into being what they perceive the other party wants or needs them to be, which impacts their ability to be genuine. Not everyone faces this concern in a professional capacity, but for those that do (even on a situational basis) they will quickly tell you one of the consequences of operating this way is that it is exhausting! Interestingly this is a concern that impacts all professionals and all levels (admin staff and CEO’s alike). Authenticity isn’t something everyone is immediately able to consistently practice in their profession. It takes practice.
Why might being authentic not be the natural way we tend to operate? Fear is what usually holds people back. Fear of rejection or of judgment, fear of looking silly, fear of not getting what we were sent in to get in a meeting. There are many factors involved in being authentic and we’ll take a look at them to determine what helps us to do this in a professional context, to transcend the fear, allowing each of us to be consistently genuine. Lets start with the basics, our own feelings of self-confidence.
There will be times we feel more confident about how to proceed then others, self confidence can be very situational; it is great when our self-confidence is present, but there are always instances when it deserts us. Couples everywhere will tell you that the magic phrase “we have to talk” will create a crisis of confidence. If your boss sends you a cryptic e-mail asking you to meet with him/her as soon as possible without stating why most people will feel anxiety. No matter how well things are going, or how well we know ourselves, life happens and occasionally we experience a confidence gap. Can we detect when we feel that gap and what its impact is on our ability to conduct ourselves? How does this feed into authenticity? Being able to be yourself is a key leadership skill, especially when you are practicing it under pressure and potentially during a physical response that may include an elevated heart rate, sweating, mild shaking, etc. This falls under the heading of self-management and it is key to consistently practicing leadership skills. Showing up for what may be a difficult conversation is a great step. Keeping your head about you before and during this conversation supports what you need to do during this conversation.
This requires you to be able to practice objectivity; a practice that begins before you even enter the conversation. The reason your significant other may want to speak to you could be as simple as needing assistance to iron out a wrinkle that popped up in your weekend plans; your boss may want to check on some miniscule data point of importance in their work. Remembering that not everything is about what you have done (or not done) as you head into these types of situations is key to remaining calm and feeling your self-confidence has got your back. You are good at what you do - center yourself in this knowledge. Being able to express yourself (and feeling like you can rely on your abilities to express yourself even in trying circumstances) is also key to being genuine. We all know those people who have faced a “firing squad” in a meeting and handled it with grace. They too were likely experiencing an elevated heart rate, etc. but they didn’t allow that to interfere in their ability to remain objective and assertively (not aggressively) conduct a conversation that lead to a positive outcome. Practice makes perfect, no one does this right the first few times; the fact that you strive to improve as you go is also a key leadership skill and one that shows up in authenticity – resiliency.
Authenticity is also present when we chose to think beyond our own needs and towards the greater needs of the situation. One of the most powerful phrases you can carry with you into a conversation is “I don’t know, but I will find out”. This can be used when you understand that having an immediate answer is less important then putting effort into finding the right answer. Many people believe that being a leader means you have all the answers immediately to hand, certainly we see this practiced quite often by political leaders (they are coached to be sure of themselves in press scrums and briefings, doesn’t always make them right). However, a great leader can look you in the eye and say, “that is a good point, I’ll need to think about it”. This practice shows up in many different ways. I attended a talk from a leading professional in HR recently and he began his presentation by letting the audience know it had been several years since he addressed an audience this large and he was a little nervous. Rather then causing a crisis of faith with respect to the individuals’ qualifications it allowed the audience as a whole to embrace the speaker. Because he practiced transparency we (as an audience) had a deeper belief in the material and expertise he brought forward. We trusted him. Transparency is a very powerful tool in being authentic.
Lastly, great leaders will always strive for the win-win. They will look towards doing the right things for the right reasons, whether they like the actions they will need to complete to get there or not. Going back to the example in my previous blog about allowing someone to merge in front of you in heavy traffic, it may not always be what you want to do, but it is the most socially responsible thing to do. Authentic leaders can make that call and help others to exercise this level of decision making as well.
There is a lot of value in being genuine with yourself and others, but how does authenticity support leadership? It is a key factor in how you “show up”, how accessible you are to others and increases trust. Most of all an authentic leader serves as a role model for moral and fair behavior, something we are looking for from our professional relationships (and businesses in general). Authenticity also allows leaders to consistently exercise a transparent approach, which builds confidence in their leadership, whether you are a colleague, client or employee. How will you exercise authenticity today?
Carleen Hicks is a Human Resource professional and certified EQ-i 2.0 Practitioner.